The Pledge starts off looking like it's going to be a festival of cliches. Nicholson is Jerry Black, an aging Nevada cop reluctantly stepping down but with nowhere to step to. His retirement party is interrupted by a report concerning the grisly murder of a 14-year old girl. Black, who sees nothing to celebrate anyway, tags along to the crime scene. When his less experienced colleagues balk at bringing the bad news to the girl's mother, he volunteers for the assignment.
Holding a cross made by her daughter, the girl's mother asks Black to swear on his "soul's salvation" that he'll find the killer. He accepts the challenge, but the way the scene is played it's hard to believe the mother's words haunt him enough to dominate his life. When the police arrest a mentally retarded Indian for the crime, they consider the case closed after the suspect commits suicide, but Black is not satisfied. He continues the investigation on his own, even going so far as to buy a rundown gas station because it's where the killer's car is believed to have made a stop.
By this time, it becomes clear that the scene between Black and the victim's mother was right on target. Black is not driven by his promise to the mother, but by his own private demons. A lifelong bachelor, his job was his life. The suspects he interrogates, the witnesses he interviews, his fellow police officers--they are his only community. Without his job, he is a man adrift. Scenes of Black fishing alone surrounded by nature's beauty never suggest the tranquility such scenes usually evoke, only isolation and despair. When he takes up with a waitress played by Robin Wright, the relationship only fuels his obsession because Black sees the woman's daughter as bait to lure the killer.
As we watch Black futilely try to hang onto his former life, we are also watching Jack Nicholson return to the kind of role worthy of his talent. After a decade in which the three time Oscar winner spent his time in high profile product requiring little more than his "Jack" persona, Nicholson is an actor again, not an icon. In Jerry Black, you can even hear faint echoes of his earlier roles: the restless Bobby Dupea of Five Easy Pieces, the disillusioned brother of King of Marvin Gardens, and even a touch of J.J. Gittes, the private eye whose morality was no match for the corruption in Chinatown.
We are also watching Sean Penn come into his own as a director. With a talented crew behind him, he fulfills the promise he showed in The Indian Runner. This is a man who may have even studied silent films when preparing to direct because he uses silence beautifully, especially in the memorable scene in which Black tells the victim's mother of her daughter's fate. Not a word is spoken between them, yet the scene has more impact than a dozen car crashes from a dozen lesser films.
Penn also surrounds his star with a first rate cast. Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Wright, and Sam Sheperd, among others, all provide excellent support. Penn even gives Mickey Rourke an opportunity to rehabilitate himself, which he does in an affecting cameo as the murdered girl's father.
The Pledge is being sold as another serial killer thriller. That may be the bait to lure you into the theater, but it's Jerry Black's torment that will stay with you when the lights are turned on.
Brian W. Fairbanks
Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2001 Brian W. Fairbanks